Basketball has, perhaps, the most distinct uniform in pro sports. The jerseys are light, sleeveless, and at times more eye-catching than those of baseball, football, or hockey. Although the basics of the uniform — breathable material and loose shorts — are often the same, the jerseys are constantly changing.
This has gone on since the early days of basketball when James Naismith was still figuring out the nuances of the game and presentation. Like many aspects of the game of basketball, however, the jerseys received a major change thanks to NBA legend Michael Jordan.
A brief history of NBA uniforms
When Naismith first introduced the basketball in 1891, players wore baggy pants and wool undershirts. Not only was this itchy, but it wasn’t the most practical way to play. However, early rules showed that this was a pass-first game where dribbling was not yet allowed, and players were as mobile as they are now.
Still, it took some time for basketball to evolve past these initial phases. After eight years, the game began to spread. By the 1920s, the game was on college campuses, and they needed uniforms that could distinguish between two teams. Wool was still in, but now the players wore shorts instead of trousers. The jerseys were also tight, like a tight suit worn underneath a current jersey.
From wool to synthetic materials
Difficult to wash, these tight suits were meant to prevent the jerseys from becoming untucked. By 1940, players began wearing synthetic materials like nylon and polyester. The jerseys became more like the track jerseys used to this day — still tight-fitting, but more comfortable than wool.
Other changes included shorter shorts and replacing belts with the elastic waistbands that are standard today. While the uniforms continued to evolve, it was Michael Jordan who helped bring in a new era.
Michael Jordan’s uniform request
In 1987, Jordan was an up-and-coming NBA superstar who was beginning to have some sway over the game. People discuss the revolutionary way Jordan changed sneaker culture, but his impact on uniforms was also huge.
In the late ’80s, shorts were still rather short and tight. Jordan didn’t like these. Some may think this preference was based on aesthetics or comfort, but there was a practical reason why Jordan wanted to change the standard short shorts. It turned out, he wanted something to grab onto during the grind of competition.
According to Jordan, the old shorts didn’t give NBA players any leverage as they tried to catch their breath. The baggy shorts Jordan wore allowed the players to hold on to the bottom of each leg and catch their breath during dead balls. Champion, which made the uniforms in the late-eighties, obliged his request. It wasn’t long before the longer shorts became the standard.
While jerseys get a little looser or tighter with every new design, but the baggy shorts have remained the same. Not only are they more fashionable, but they offer players a greater degree of comfort. And, as Jordan wanted, they give them something to grab on to when they are hunched over and catching a breath.